Within two hours of Gov. Tim Walz’s sudden Thursday announcement that he would end Minnesota’s statewide mask mandate, YMCA employees in the Twin Cities learned by email that “effective immediately” many patrons and employees would no longer need to wear masks indoors if fully vaccinated.
By next morning, YMCA employees received another email saying the new directive would only apply to the YMCA Southdale location in Edina. Masks would still be required at YMCA facilities in Minneapolis and St. Paul, two cities that have not yet lifted their mask mandates.
The confusion and scrambling that followed the abrupt shift in guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a reflection of the patchwork of government orders that businesses and Minnesotans will have to navigate.
Many large businesses said they would keep their mask rules in place, including Target, Walmart and Home Depot. Meanwhile, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said the state’s two largest cities would keep mask mandates in place.
“We’re the regulatory floor, not the ceiling,” said Teddy Tschann, a Walz spokesman. “Businesses and local communities can do their own.”
Meanwhile, at the Legislature, the House DFL moved Friday to eliminate its mask rule for members. The GOP-led Senate had already made masks optional.
Previously, Walz had set July 1 as the deadline for when he would lift the mask mandate, first implemented last July. The mandate could be lifted sooner once 70% of the eligible population had at least one shot; currently that rate is 61%.
People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine; or two weeks after the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
While a majority of Minnesotans have now been vaccinated, the rates are uneven.
Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Bender on Friday tweeted alarming figures that show racial disparities in vaccination among Minneapolis residents.
“Our city Health Commissioner is explaining that the mask mandate in Minneapolis will stay in place because while 71% of white people have received one dose, that number is 28% of our Black neighbors and 35% for Latino people in Minneapolis,” Bender tweeted.
State health officials are stepping up outreach efforts to convince people who are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine, emphasizing the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, as well as offering walk-in services at vaccination sites across the state.
Walz on Thursday urged people who were not yet vaccinated to do so. He said the federal guidance, while arriving without any prior notice, made the enforceability of a mask mandate impractical.
Determining who is fully vaccinated and who isn’t would create a “dual-tiered” system that would become too confusing, he said.
Adding to the challenges is staunch opposition by Minnesota Republicans to so-called vaccine passports, which some private companies have begun offering to people who want to provide proof of their vaccination status. Senate Republicans are moving to approve legislation that would ban vaccine passports, despite Walz’s previous comments that he is not considering such measures.
Minnesotans navigating the state’s transition away from mask requirements will also have to abide by masking rules still in place in school districts.
Walz said on Thursday that school districts will set their own mask policies once the school year ends, but until then, masks would continue to be required.
“I’m disappointed it looks like our kids will still be masked in classrooms and when playing sports when they are not a high risk,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, tweeted on Thursday, saying it was “about time” Walz had lifted the mandate. Although young people and children are at low risk for serious COVID-19 sickness, they have been the source of broad outbreaks, which in turn can wind up infecting more vulnerable populations, including their teachers. Last month, the sixth Minnesota school staff member died due to complications of COVID-19.